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A Plea for Rugby and Curling on TV

This story was written by Paul Gassée, writer and radio host of "Your Sports Night Cap"

More and more, and particularly in moments of recession, people turn on their TVs instead of going through the turnstiles of their local sports arena. The NFL's great success and standing as the 800-pound gorilla of the North American sporting landscape is due, in large part, to understanding and embracing one small modern notion: professional football is a television show above all else. While television has its limitations (communicating true speed for one), it is very proficient at delivering a broadcast sporting event to a large number of eyeballs.

Last month, the Vancouver Olympics opened a window on sports we rarely have an opportunity to watch on a regular basis. While learning about and re-discovering some of these athletic disciplines, I began to think about the sports that make for good television but don't yet get showcased on the boob tube enough. Consider this a plea to television executives everywhere, asking them to take a chance on sports that haven't gotten the airtime they deserve. I thought we would forge ahead and start compiling a list of the World's Most Underrated Television Sports.

1) Short-Track Speed Skating: It may well the most underrated television sport out there. The mixture of unpredictability, sheer chaos, white backdrop, tight spandex, and precision passing make this athletic endeavor one of the best watches on the tube. This sport encompasses quite a few things that Nascar is desperately trying to rekindle or fabricate. You add in an articulate Apolo Anton Ohno for good measure (and star power), and the occasional last-minute disqualification and you've got yourself a nail-biting sport that deserves to get more year-round television coverage. It is, perhaps, the best television sport of the Olympics, and it certainly deserves to have a television executive bet on it at some point down the line.

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(AP Photo/Robert Bukaty)
2) Curling: I know, I know. You're going to start telling me that sliding stones on ice is not even a sport. If men can keep regular jobs, drink beer, and forgo much if not all cross-training, and still make the US Olympic team, the discipline in question probably doesn't qualify as an athletic endeavor. What can I tell you? I've got a soft spot for any bar game-shuffleboard-that has been augmented and placed on ice. In our increasingly caffeinated and attention-starved society, perhaps I've remained old-fashioned. I like to see grown men and women yell at each other about sweeping the floor. Such disputes about domestic tasks once remained behind closed doors; contained within one's household. I somehow feel privileged to have the opportunity to witness those exchanges. For those reasons, Curling makes for an inherently compelling television spectacle. We need more wall-to-wall coverage throughout the year, like we had on CNBC during the Games. Can we go as far as to ask for this sport to have its own cable channel?
3) Beach Volleyball: Tall, golden, lean, sweaty, partially-naked bodies moving dynamically on sand in little more than swimsuits. The protagonists in these contests are overwhelmingly eye-pleasing, and evoke some semblance of sensuality as they compete on the AVP Tour. This sport can be distilled in the following elevator pitch: "Baywatch" meets volleyball. Much for the same reasons that Pam Anderson's show enjoyed such long-standing success, beach volleyball is clearly a winner with television viewers. For those in cold weather climates, watching these tight-bodied athletes on a beach setting can provide a nice respite and escape from the chilling realities of daily life. For those in inhabiting warmer destinations, viewing these top competitors can make you feel like you, too, can step out to the nearest sandlot and replicate some of the action you have just witnessed.
(AP / ABC News)
4) Rugby: What would you say if I told you could have a sport related to football without heavy padding and with the same level of contact? You would say "Give me more!" right? Despite the United States having had a strong rugby tradition in the beginning of the 20th century through to the 1924 Games, where the squad brought home a gold medal, rugby is rarely, if ever, televised during primetime in America. While football gives you the impression of a gladiatorial sport pitting two heavily armored teams against each other, rugby has the advantage of giving you the same level of physicality, sans large pads. What does that translate to? More blood and guts spilled on the playing field. And more actual face time for the game's stars. There is a reason why football players occasionally take off their helmets during their touchdown celebrations. They want to be recognizable to fans out there. They remove the heavy armor that makes them bland and similar to their teammates, and strive to stand out on their own, as individuals. Team sports have embraced the notion of marketing through individual star power. What marketer or television executive doesn't want more recognizable protagonists putting themselves on the line for their televised event? You've guessed it: none. Rugby only makes it easier with no helmets and lighter padding.

Now that we've established these sports as good television, can we start pitching these to some of the television big wigs? Are they ready to roll the dice and take some chances? Nothing against the allure of football, the mental confrontations of poker, or the wall-to-wall coverage of March Madness...I'm an avid consumer of all of them. But, can we possibly mix things up on occasion? The key is opening one's mind, keeping one's eyes peeled, and allowing the rest to follow. Television's role in sports will only continue to grow.